By Daniel BrettigDecember 25, 2023
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Disappearing into the crowd at Kings Park in Perth last week, Pat Cummins was an enraptured spectator watching rock band The War On Drugs play the final show of a triumphant Australian tour.
Here was the irony. For most of 2023, Cummins and his team had been the performers on the biggest stages of their careers, bringing home the World Cup, the Ashes and the World Test Championship as millions were glued to their seats or TV screens.
It is the way of international cricket in 2023 that Cummins had his best window to reflect on the year when Australia’s Test team started out on the next assignment. Apart from the gig, players spent time on a boat owned by a friend of Mitchell Marsh and also, inevitably, played golf.
“This is normally when the busiest time of the year starts, but it almost felt like this was the most relaxed time,” Cummins tells this masthead as part of an interview reviewing 2023. “We’d done all the hard work, we’d played all the hard games away, and now we’re back on home soil.
“It was a great few days seeing everyone after the World Cup, getting back together, still on a high. We sat back and were like ‘ahh, how great is it to be playing for Australia’.”
For Cummins, it was a year that tested his mettle as a young captain before he finished on the best possible note at the World Cup. He also had to cope with the deep personal pain of losing his mother, Maria, to breast cancer. Going home after the second Test of the Border-Gavaskar series in Delhi, Cummins now concedes his mind was nowhere near cricket.
‘My head wasn’t in India’
Cummins and his family had reckoned for more than a year with the return of Maria’s cancer, and he had planned in part to spend some quality time with her between tours in 2023 by not going to the Indian Premier League.
But news of her worsening condition reached Cummins just before the Delhi Test, and he went home ahead of the third Test at Indore, where deputy Steve Smith led the team to a win that clinched their place in the Test Championship decider.
“I must say I look back at that tour and it is all a bit of a blur,” Cummins says. “My head wasn’t in India, my head was back home with Mum and the family. But the boys were fantastic.
“I couldn’t have asked for any more support, and to be able to get home and have the last couple of weeks with Mum was special. I’m so glad I did that, and to be honest, I didn’t really watch too much of the last two Test matches.”
As for the series itself, Cummins agrees there are numerous members of the squad who would like to go back in 2027 and try to do it better – particularly that shuddering collapse in Delhi when the game was there to be taken.
“We had our chances for sure, in that Delhi game in particular,” Cummins says. “But it’s hard, it’s really hard. That will be a series we look back at as one that got away from us. Only because we’ve got really high standards, not because it’s easy.”
One of many strange memories in a year of so many matches was the fact that the series started with Travis Head getting dropped. Cummins’ eyes widen at the thought, particularly given what Head has done since.
“It feels about 10 years ago,” he says. “It’s crazy to think that was still 2023.”
From the Warner conundrum to world champions
Australia’s arrival in England was swiftly followed by David Warner’s public declaration that, if selected, he wanted to play on until this summer’s Sydney Test against Pakistan. It was a bold call given his struggles in India.
But Cummins reveals that it was Warner’s tone-setting innings on the first morning of the World Test Championship final that reassured him and the selectors that the left-hander could still do more than any challenger to help the team.
Cummins had stated bluntly to Warner that he needed to try to make the play against the world’s best bowlers to be of most value to the team. It was something Warner has gamely tried to do in each match since.
“We lost the toss and got sent in on a really tricky wicket. And I specifically remember Davey going out and playing the way that we all hoped he would, and that’s taking the game on, being aggressive, being sharp,” Cummins says.
“[I said to him] ‘when you’re doing that you’ve always got a spot in this team because you’re going to score runs. But when you’re not playing like that, I don’t think you’re putting the percentages in your favour’. I think for a lot of that trip there were some times where he didn’t score runs, but I thought he looked really sharp and was giving himself the best chance.
“[I said to him] ‘when you’re doing that you’ve always got a spot in this team because you’re going to score runs. But when you’re not playing like that, I don’t think you’re putting the percentages in your favour’.”
“We say that to all the guys; ‘if you play this way … double down on what makes you the best player’. For Davey, I think he’s at his best when he’s aggressive, taking the game on, playing his shots, being really sharp and energetic.”
Cummins recalls that innings, the big stand between Head and Smith, and the precision seam bowling of Scott Boland as vital to the outcome. But he also sensed a somewhat rusty team performance, and knew better would be needed against England.
“I see that Test match as so different from the Ashes,” he says. “For a few reasons, but the main reason was that pitch was nothing like any of the Ashes tour pitches. As a bowler, you always felt like you were in the game in [the] 2019 [Ashes] and in that Test match as well, where even if the ball was 60 overs old, you felt like you could have a couple of slips in place, and you were going to get an edge.
“Whereas a lot of this Ashes series was a bit more like one-day cricket where you don’t have too many catchers behind the wicket, and you spread the field because there’s basically no swing or seam.”
‘The best Test match I’ve been part of’
So to Edgbaston and the first Ashes Test, a game where Australia hung onto England’s coattails for four days, finally to clamber over the line on the fifth evening.
While Usman Khawaja kept Australia in the game with the bat, and Nathan Lyon did likewise with the ball, it was left to Cummins and Lyon to forge a ninth-wicket stand for the winning runs, setting off rare scenes of jubilation.
There was more emotion than usual for Cummins, as proceedings were watched by his dad, Peter, and the pair shared a tearful hug after victory was secured. It was their first Test together without Maria – she and Peter had been in England together in 2019.
“That series, in particular, had more build-up than any other series I’d ever played in, and then to have the fairytale moment where Nathan and I are there on the last day hitting the winning runs, that was magic enough,” Cummins says, smiling.
“But then to have Dad there after what we’d been through. He was there in the crowd with Mum in 2019, and you could not have written a better script. It’s probably the best Test match I’ve been part of, and so many things came together. I’ll always remember that one.”
‘I’d never seen anything like it’
Cummins confesses that as soon as Lyon tore his calf on the second afternoon of the Lord’s Test, he felt the match was instantly all but out of reach.
His only back-up plan was to try short-pitched bowling at England’s Bazballers, aided by a pitch that was friendly to batters on a good length but more variable halfway down.
“We started off quite well and then the Nathan Lyon injury kind of put us up against it,” he says. “It was a pretty flat wicket, we lost our main spin bowler, who normally bowls a third of the overs, so I remember at that moment thinking, ‘geez, we’re a long way away from taking 20 wickets here’.
“[There was] not a lot in the wicket, maybe a bit of turn, but we’ve lost our spinner. So we did the bouncer plan and luckily that worked because I’m not sure we had anything else if that didn’t work.”
Being alert to left-field ways of taking wickets, especially with the bouncer plan so often in use, led to Alex Carey stumping Jonny Bairstow, an incident Cummins and his team remain comfortable about.
The visceral reaction of the Lord’s crowd, however, has stayed with Cummins. So, too, the ugly scenes in the Long Room and the stairwells, culminating in the expulsion of one MCC member and the long-term suspension of two others.
“Day five was just crazy. It was off the charts how insane it got,” Cummins says. “I’d never seen anything like it, you’re there for a game of cricket, but it felt like it was two countries clashing. I don’t know how to explain it really.
“From the first ball in Birmingham, it was loud and noisy, and I’d never seen any series like that before, it was just a series where everything was dialled up. But I do think after that Lord’s Test, the hostility was dialled up a little bit for the rest of the series.”
Intriguingly, for a team that has had to face public opprobrium more than once for varying reasons, Cummins reflects that the polarisation of the Bairstow incident actually left his team feeling more supported from Australia than they had ever been previously.
“From Australia, we felt the most support we’ve ever felt as a team,” he says. “Everyone seemed to galvanise around that Lord’s incident and backed us in.”
The tactical question
Several times, Australia came very close to finishing off the series at Leeds. When Mitchell Marsh was flying on day one, a big first-innings score looked likely.
Then England were seven down and well short of Australia’s tally, before Ben Stokes took over. Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne and Smith were maybe half an hour away from batting England out of the game on the second evening.
England still needed 80 runs when their sixth wicket fell on what became the final day. All these missed opportunities stemmed, in part, from tactical mistakes by Cummins and his players. Some of those were repeated again at Manchester. It’s an area of the series Cummins ponders carefully before offering up what he learned.
“In Australia, we’ve played here so often, and we’re normally in control, so I like to see things play out and give it a good chance,” he says. “If you intervene too much, sometimes you can get in the way of what makes us really good here in these conditions. So for some parts of that series that was my mindset.
“There’s already enough happening in the game, it’s already been rushed enough, so I thought if we could keep our cool and just let it play out, then the game would come to us. Looking back, perhaps maybe there’s times we could’ve gone with different plans or maybe moved a bit quicker. But I wouldn’t change a heap.
“There’s probably a thousand opinions out there about that, but being out there in those moments and playing on those wickets, I felt like for a lot of it we got pretty close to right. But [there were] a few times where, if I had my time again, I’d probably change a couple of things. Maybe bouncer plans, at times we bowled it too much.”
As for Old Trafford, Cummins acknowledges that he bowled poorly on day two, although subsequent team data analysis indicated that England’s opener Zak Crawley enjoyed a day out.
“I always felt in the back of my mind I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those days happens where it just comes off for England,” Cummins says. “It’s like an ODI where a team swings hard and gets 400. We weren’t bowling at our best, me included; I was probably the biggest culprit … I didn’t bowl particularly well that day.
“That adds to it, but they batted well. Even if you go to some of the data, I think the areas we bowled, if we did that normally you’d be taking a lot more wickets than we did. So a few things didn’t go our way, they batted well, we weren’t at our best, and that got away from us.”
Waking up to rainy skies over the final three days of the Test, Cummins was not exactly forlorn. “I felt like we were a long way from winning the Test, so rain was going to help,” he says. “I wasn’t too upset with that.”
‘It will add to the folklore’
England always seemed to have something up their sleeve at the Oval. Australia dropped catches on day one, helping them get a competitive score, and after a strong start to their fourth innings chase, the tourists fell afoul of rain that helped Stokes’ team. A ball change aided the home team even more.
These circumstances gave Stuart Broad the chance for a glorious farewell to the Test arena, and a final 2-2 result the Cummins believes both teams will ruminate on until their next encounter, in Australia in 2025-26.
“I think it will add to the folklore,” he says. “And I think we should be proud of retaining them away from home. It’s not easy. We’d earned that right by winning the series here a couple of years previously in Australia.
“I find myself thinking of the moments that got away, but you could also look at how we grabbed it off them at Edgbaston. So it is a fair reflection of the series. Both teams will rue 100 of those little moments they could have done a bit differently.
“I was drained at the end for sure, six Test matches in seven weeks. There’s no escape from the cauldron. But coming back to Australia, and even in England, the amount of people who came up on the streets; it was never anything negative. It was always, ‘that was the best cricket we’ve ever watched, we’ve just had the best summer of cricket’. That was special.”
‘Looks like 2027 is the next big one’
Victory in the 50-over World Cup, of course, put the capstone on the year. Cummins nods when asked how much he valued the team’s ability to sustain their performance after the Ashes, as England’s white-ball team fell into an unceremonious heap.
“These four tours don’t get any bigger,” he says. “India into WTC, into Ashes, into the World Cup. [I’m] really proud, if we go back to the Ashes, about how the group conducted themselves the whole time. You’re dealing with fatigue, you’re dealing with form, pressure, I thought the boys were fantastic the way they conducted themselves.
“To then go into a World Cup after that big of a year and still be able to peak, that just adds even more to what made that win so special.”
Looking back, Cummins had started thinking about 2023 and how to tackle its myriad challenges nearly four years before; at the end of 2019. In between, he assumed the captaincy and helped fashion a team environment that could remain calm and level overseas.
Cummins is unsure of whether he will get to 2027 as a player, and is doubtful he will do so as captain. But he also recalls thinking, in 2019, that 2023 looked a long way off.
“It’s funny what years you bookmark,” he says. “So 2011 was the year after I finished school and debuted. In 2015, the World Cup win. Then 2017 was the year I started playing all formats again. I remember 2019 was a huge year.
“Then I was thinking after that, ‘OK, 2023 we’ve got the same huge year; a World Cup and an Ashes, plus an India tour’. So four years out really, and I think it sounds like 2027 is the next big one; away Ashes, World Cup and India again. That seems forever away now.
“In 2019, I remember thinking ‘that’s a long time away, geez I’m not sure I’ll be part of that World Cup. Hopefully I’m still in the Aussie team then’, but it comes around pretty quick.”
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